McOwen Street, action central

After moving from the farm, the family lived in a succession of rented houses Grandpa later pointed out as I rode with him around the northwestern quadrant of town. In these houses, Grandma was soon coping with three small children – Marion, my dad, born in 1922, Myrl Yvonne in 1924, and Donna June in 1927. One photo of the three kids gives the location as 421 Upland Avenue and has Dad in overalls and a fireman’s hat. Another, from Gettysburg Avenue, shows Myrl holding a doll nearly her own size, a scowling Donna gripping a teddy bear, and Dad in knickers and sneakers, deep in a book rather than acknowledging the camera.

The place I knew is the home they eventually owned at 39 McOwen Street, which was also the headquarters for his plumbing business. What catches me off-guard is that the actual purchase didn’t take place until June 20, 1940 – for $3,825. Up to this point, Grandpa had been, like his own father, landless; Joshua had set forth from the family’s small “plantation” in North Carolina, as all farms there were called, and become a sojourning tenant among the Hoosiers and Buckeyes. Now entering his own fifth decade, Grandpa could finally say he was sinking roots.

It was here that their fourth child, Thelma, quickly dubbed TJ by her siblings, was born. As we reexamine the time frame, she calculates, “so they had to have moved there before 1934. They converted the living room to the delivery room. Dad took your Dad, Myrl, and Donna to Uncle Arlie’s earlier that Sunday morning, so they were not present for this superhuman birth.”

Her cousin Wilma, in comparison, admits, “I don’t remember anything about the time when TJ was born.” From her perspective, maybe it was just another day of playing ball with her cousins Marion, Myrl, and Donna.

The McOwen Street house we remember is as least twice the size it was in fact. The frame structure was built in the late 1800s on a narrow lot, and had a railroad-car sequence of living room, dining room, kitchen, and, at the back, the office of James F. Hodson Plumbing & Heating. Its clapboards were narrow, painted a café au lait. An L-shaped porch wrapped around the front, allowing entry to the residence through the dining room, rather than the door to the living room. It helped that the dining room was essentially set sideways into the house, with a bay window on the side beside the entry, with the stairs to the second floor opposite. A natural-gas fireplace sat along the wall against the kitchen, though I never recall it actually working. (It probably would have been too hot for the room, anyway.) A separate entry at the end of a walkway beside the house led to the office. There was also a corridor from the kitchen to the office, as well as a doorway no longer in use.

Along an alley at the back of the lot was “the shop,” a small two-story carriage house filled with bins of plumbing supplies – the various joints and elbows, valves, caulking, solder and muriatic acid – as well as a much-used pipe cutter and threader on a stand. The structure had its own definitive smells: the mixture of oil and metal shavings, plus old warehouse dust, especially. In front of this but behind a trellis lay rows of cast-iron and lead pipes in many diameters. There was barely room at the side for the boarded gate to the alley, where Grandpa rented neighboring garages to securely park his trucks overnight. His own car was out on the street.

As kids, we would play on the pipes, of course, though there weren’t many fantasies we could construct from their utilitarian appearance. It was more like walking metal tight-rope.

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Riding along in Bessie and other business

When I came along, as their second grandchild, Grandpa was 48 – not quite five years older than his father had been at Grandpa’s birth. This might suggest Grandpa had experienced some of the emotional distance from his own father that I, in turn, felt from him.  That is, he was repeating a pattern he had absorbed as a child. There was, at least, something formal in the relationship between generations.

My earliest memories include climbing – repeatedly – up through his legs as he sat in his upholstered chair in their living room (in the days before the recliner) or of being bounced on his lap – the same chair he’d wind up snoring in after Sunday dinners. Curiously, I don’t recall the same playfulness with my own dad, although I carry a memory of riding home on his shoulders once, all the way from Wayne Avenue to our rental on Wilmington, and impressions of riding piggy-back from time to time.

Later memories have Grandpa sitting in the chair, teasing at a strand of hair – a nervous habit that left bald patches in his otherwise thick head of hair.

While his plumbers relied on a fleet of paneled vans, Grandpa always relied on a pickup named “Bessie,” no matter the make or model, or a nondescript car for his rounds. The vinyl seat-covers he proudly installed were sticky hot in the summer and stiffly cold in winter. During the years we were without a car of our own, Dad would sometimes borrow Bessie for the weekend so we could run errands or go out to the farm. In those days, we kids could always ride in the open-air bed, as long as we behaved ourselves. It’s been outlawed, at least where I live.

By the time I remember riding along with Grandpa on his plumbing rounds, he was well established and in his 50s. At that time in my life, chemistry experiments would have been more interesting, along with seining crawdads. But there was little explanation in these trips to the plumbing supply warehouse or the Ford dealer, much less the intricacies of one hot water heater over another, or the reasons we were popping into basements all over town.

As boss, he could combine business and pleasure. I remember his  stopping at a small grocery on Riverside Drive, the only place for miles that carried a delicacy known as pickled pigs feet. He bought several jars, and then found an excuse to be in another part of town where he could pull to the curb, run up to a door, and hand one to the woman of the house. “Surprise Ike when he comes home tonight,” he told her.

“Oh, James!” she shrieked. “You know how much he likes these!”

Ike was one of his black diggers. Or “colored,” as they said.

Me, I never touched the stuff. And, come to think of it, I’m not sure he offered.

Once, he let me open the mail when it arrived beside the dining room. I remember handling a check for almost seven hundred dollars and thinking it was an impressive sum. (In fairness, the average annual wage at the time was under $5,000.) I imagined Grandpa must be a very rich man to be getting checks like that. But another envelope had a cancelation mark saying HELP STAMP OUT SYPHILLIS. “Grandpa, what’s syphillis?” I asked innocently.

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Business, politics, Masons, and religion 

If Leroy touted his Rotorooter and its edge in his plumbing business, Grandpa answered with his Republicanism. Not that he ever ran for office or even served as an Election Day poll checker, as far as I know. Presumably, he could be counted on to contribute financially to campaigns, but even there I’m in the dark. “I know James was a Republican, but I do not know how involved he was,” Wilma says.

Despite his own partisan identification, Grandpa spoke repeatedly of his friend Jesse Haines, his wife’s second-cousin and Hall of Fame pitcher who was urged to run for county auditor after retiring from Major League Baseball. When Republicans approached Haines to run on the slate, he acknowledged that he was good at dealing with the public but knew nothing of auditing. And so, when elected, he invited his young opponent to become his assistant, the half of the team who actually knew the details of auditing. But there was a caveat: if you accept, you agree not to run against me; in return, when I retire, I’ll support your campaign. As a result, Haines returned to office for seven consecutive terms, totalling 28 years – and, true to promise, on his retirement, Jesse Yoder ran unopposed for successive victories.

I imagine that Grandpa’s Republicanism was somehow interwoven with his freemasonry. I faintly remember he wore the ring and perhaps the lapel pin. Beyond that, and an awareness that Grandma was a member of the women’s auxiliary, Order of the Eastern Star, I know little. What I do realize is that these would have been a repudiation of both their Quaker and Brethren heritage, which opposed both the taking of oaths, secrecy, and favoritism to individuals. The United Brethren had already struggled with the issue, as Tom Crouch describes in The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright:

“A group of young ministers – Liberals, as they would come to be called – argued that the church must be brought into step with the times. Secret societies no longer aroused the horror they had in 1840. The Masonic order had grown from a membership of perhaps 5,000 during the 1850s to as many as 200,000 members by 1865. Membership in a lodge or fraternal order offered a sense of belonging and identity so often missing in the lives of American who had left farms, small towns, or villages for the big city.”

The tension finally led the denomination to split in 1882, with Wright heading the minority conservatives. The description of the sense of belonging and identity for those who left farms and small towns for the city would certainly fit the situation of Leroy and James, in moving to Dayton.

Discussing Bishop Milton Wright, Crouch observes, “Masonry – perceived as an elitist conspiracy whose only real purpose was to confer unfair advantage on its members – ran counter to his most cherished values.” But to a young man, now moved to the city and attempting to establish a livelihood, these connections might be considered helpful to survival or success.

As a child, we attended the Shrine Circus, which performed each year in a pavilion at the County Fairgrounds. I knew we got the tickets through Grandpa, but I didn’t know he was a member of this select group of Masons. The circus seemed a rather weird tradition, something I just couldn’t appreciate within its hawking of cotton candy and Cracker Jacks, the parts we really liked. The trapeze artists, elephants, and lion tamers simply came from a surreal dimension that somehow failed to impress children who had television at home.

We knew the Mason’s large limestone temple next to the Dayton Art Institute overlooked the Great Miami River and downtown. There were later stories Grandpa had planned to sponsor Dad in membership, using money he placed in a cigar box after he gave up smoking cigars. But Dad never joined, and I don’t know if it was for lack of interest or whether Grandpa never pressed the issue. Or, for that matter, what happened to the money.

“I know James was a Mason,” Wilma wrote. “I think it was more for business than anything else.”

Sometime after Grandma’s death and his remarriage, Grandpa sent me “this clipping out of my Shrine Monthly News. I like it very much and a bit of joy comes as I realize I am one – only one – of ‘those Shriners.’” I long ago lost the clipping and now wonder just what it was he so much valued. Nevertheless, Masonic membership was part of his self-identity.

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